US lawmakers grill airline executives after customer disasters

In the wake of the United Airlines passenger-dragging incident last month, U.S. legislators grilled executives from some of the nation's largest airlines on Tuesday - and reports say they often sounded like any other group of aggrieved passengers wondering why flying often seems so unpleasant. Congress warned United CEO Oscar Munoz that unless things change, the airline will feel the wrath of lawmakers.

"I shouldn't need to remind you that Congress will not hesitate to act whenever necessary to ensure your customers, our constituents, are treated with the respect they deserve", Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., said. But Shuster and others said they would prefer not to legislate around issues about how airlines sell their product.

David Dao suffered from a concussion and two broken teeth when being dragged off the flight since the airline needed to make room for crew members.

Airline executives found themselves in the hot seat Tuesday, forced to answer questions about customer service.

"It was a mistake of epic proportions, clearly, in hindsight", Munoz told the transportation panel at the 4 1/2-hour hearing.

The alternative is to face additional legislation, "which I think is fair", he added.In response to the dragging incident, United has changed its policies by reducing overbooked flights and offering passengers who give up their seats up to $10,000.Airlines have said they routinely overbook flights because a small percentage of passengers do not show up.Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) declined to testify.

Also read: American Airlines employee accused of hitting mom with her baby's stroller.

"This is a turning point for United, and our 87,000 professionals", a contrite Munoz said.

First, he said, law enforcement was called to remove Dao off the plane when the passenger refused, but a security issue "did not exist" and airline staff shouldn't have called the cops. The incident ignited a debate about poor service and a lack of customer-friendly policies on US airlines.

"You made your problem the customer's problem", Larsen said.

United's president, Scott Kirby, joined Munoz at Tuesday's hearing, along with top executives of American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines.

Munoz apologized for the April 9 incident and the airline's response, telling the committee the initial episode was "a frightful failure", and his first response to it was "inadequate".

The House Transportation Committee is conducting an oversight hearing on the United incident and other passenger serviced issues with air travel.

The video sparked public outrage, not only against United, but against the airline industry in general for its practice of overbooking and treatment of passengers.

After the hearing, Munoz said the message that change was needed was loud and clear. "If you want to keep treating us this way, fine. but there will come a day when Congress won't accept it anymore on behalf of the American people".

United and Dao's attorney announced that a settlement had been reached last week.

"The reason I am sitting here today is that on April 9 we had a serious breach of public trust", Munoz testified before the House Transportation Committee. "But in truth, these problems are not specific to United Airlines".

Lawmakers griped about crammed flights, confusing pricing policies for food and bags and excessive fees for customers who change flights.

But negative perception of the airline increased by 500 percent after that April 9th incident.

  • Zachary Reyes